Review: Hugo's

Midweek special gets top-notch gourmet food at neighborhood prices
By BRIAN DUFF  |  February 23, 2011

HEAD INSIDE With this special, you can afford Hugo’s.

For many years now the most memorable meals to be had in Portland have been at Hugo's. Chef Rob Evans earned the prestigious 2009 James Beard Foundation award as best chef in the Northeastern United States by specializing in tasting menus that combine French flavors and technique, American localism and organicism, and Spanish whimsy. But Hugo's often seemed to belong more to upscale tourists than to Portlanders. It is packed in the summer but can be sleepy in the winter.

In recent years Hugo's has introduced both a bar menu and an à la carte dinner menu, which have made the restaurant more accessible to locals. But this winter they are offering a midweek tasting menu that is not be missed: $42 for six courses. That is half the regular price; a third of what you would pay for a comparable meal in New York; and about equal to an appetizer, an entrée, and a split dessert at any upscale restaurant in Portland. For most incomes dinner out at a formal restaurant is a rare treat and a splurge. Right now Hugo's midweek menu offers the most splurgy satisfaction for your money.

Since it's a blind tasting menu, you don't know what is coming before it arrives, and one of the great pleasures of this meal is the collective experience of anticipation and discovery — everyone eating the same dish at the same time. The waiter gives you bullet points while you stare down at the interesting collage of ingredients on the plate or bowl before you. Each course is more chamber music than symphony: usually three or four clear and simple flavors and textures define each dish. For example: salmon cured in mandarin blossom vodka was fragrant of citrus, which was emphasized and complicated by a paper thin slice of Meyer lemon. A creamy egg-yolk puree mixed with dark green little leaves of bok choy added some depth underneath. The unusual cure gave the salmon a texture a bit like toro.

It would be easy to go on about the highlights of the many courses, from the amuse of mackerel two ways (pickled and grilled), to the two separate desserts (breakfasty squares of cinnamony, nutmegy bread soaked in spicy cream, and a pineapple sherbet served with braised pineapple, crunchy bits of shortbread, and a chocolate tea foam). In fact, go on and on about the food is just what we did while we ate, but since the menu is constantly changing you will have to discover for yourself.

What won't change (we hope) is the wintery warmth of the whole experience. The chef sent out many bowls in which the ingredients soaked up broths of varying richness and texture. In one course shrimp fritters bobbed in a subtle consommé made with prosciutto, and spotted with crunchy kale. In the next, delicate fluke and silky mussels were doused in a thin, mild almond milk. Then came a broth made from matsutake and marrow, which achieved an impressive intensity of boney, funky flavor. It was served with braised short rib over braised daikon, draped with a single wide udon noodle. Only the final savory course of roasted chicken with truffle stuffing ended the parade of warm broths. Its pickled kumquats tied things back to the citrus notes introduced four courses earlier.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Seafood, food, Rob Evans,  More more >
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